???????????????????????????????The first time I heard of Martin Moran was in the Pindar valley.

Couple of villagers mentioned his name.

I started frequenting Munsyari.

I heard his name mentioned there too.

Later when the first Indian ascent of Changuch happened, Martin’s name was firm reference point for his expedition had recorded the peak’s first ascent. That in turn, was the fallout of a climbing trip to Nanda Devi East, which he chose to abort and redirect towards Changuch. Before Nanda Devi East, Martin had been up Baljuri and Panwali Dwar.

These are not just engaging mountains.

They fall at a junction in geography and spirituality that is important to Garhwal and Kumaon, particularly the latter. Knowing who Martin is and what his body of work is, appeared essential. When the chance to review his book emerged, I was delighted.

`Higher Ground – A Mountain Guide’s Life’ was a mixed package.

Its strength is that it gives much insight into the subtitle. It is required reading for anyone aspiring to be a mountain guide. If you are imagining a book with details on a plethora of knots and anchor systems – a sort of technical manual; you are mistaken. Martin’s book is his life in guiding, shared. It does not unduly play up the usual lot of technical information, which the term `mountain guide’ evokes. Instead, it provides a taste of how the guide sets up business, works with clients, how much the envelope is pushed for achievement on trips and most important – how even a guide of considerable experience like Martin, won’t hesitate to turn back if conditions on a mountain are bad. If I may say so, there is much relevance in India to reading this book because in the Indian rat race, admiration for being superhuman and the compulsion to be superhuman are both high. They are among sentiments shaping our perception of climbing. Ahead of being comfortable with climbing, it is unfortunately seen as achievement. Martin’s book, although unashamedly nurtured on a diet of climbing, does not hesitate to talk of mistakes, accidents, long days that he and clients got away with and mountains that seemed wiser to behold from far.

High altitude isn’t everything. There is much to keep you busy at the lower heights. Martin’s book introduced me to peak bagging in Scotland; of clients returning to accomplish the ascent of a cherished number of these peaks. Equally, the book also lays bare how the mountains of Scotland and the Alps of Europe can be laboratory for eventual success in the Himalaya. You don’t find this said as such; you glean it. Nearly three quarters of the book obsesses with specific routes and climbs in Europe, something that can tire a reader unfamiliar with these environs. But in the end, you see the organic link, the making of competence. You can definitely do the same in the Himalaya (as many from Nepal and India’s mountain states do) but the point is – there is no substitute to being out and climbing. In the outdoors, you are only as good as how frequently you are out. Indeed Martin’s book is a freight train of personal climbs and climbs done with clients. So much so, it is sparse on his personal life.

From a reader’s perspective, the book is a challenge given three quarters of the book dwelling on the Scottish highlands and the European Alps (with some mention of Norway in between) and the difference in character between narratives from there and the Himalaya. It is a tough contrast to bridge smoothly. Europe’s mountains, heavily climbed and well known, bristle with technical information. Despite best effort to tell a story, accounts of climbing feel dry. I felt the book’s first three quarters was a stiff narrative that could have been made gentler for folks like me. I started enjoying the book from the last quarter. That’s when Martin reaches the Himalaya. With its unique matrix of mountain dimension, altitude, spirituality and people amid it all, narratives from the Himalaya are by nature different from stories from Europe. Couldn’t Martin have kept the style of narration uniform – either the texture of Scotland and Alps all the way or the texture of the Himalaya all the way (as I would prefer)? Or, mixing up the chapters in a non linear fashion? I wonder. All I will say is – I laboured through the first three quarters of the book and enjoyed the last quarter.

The book’s other weakness is exactly what it delivers as its strength. If you prefer the non commercial context as ideal window to the mountains, then this may not be your cup of tea. It shows in the rather limited ruminations on life and life’s questions that dot the narrative. This book is about work.

It is worth reading, especially if you are mountain guide or aspiring to be one.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly longer version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal Volume 70)


???????????????????????????????Alan Hinkes’ book, ` 8000 Metres – Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains,’ should make a fine addition to the library.

Hinkes is the first British mountaineer to have climbed all the fourteen 8000m-peaks.

On the Internet, his achievement is sometimes qualified as “ disputed,’’ the ascent of Cho Oyu being case in point. Hinkes mentions reaching the mountain’s vast summit and walking around to ensure that there isn’t any higher to go. All this is in semi white out condition with reduced visibility. Views of other major peaks, useful to establish proof of summit, remain elusive. Hinkes is also alone at this stage of the climb. “ I did not bother to take any photos. There was nothing to see and I was more concerned with finding my way back before I became trapped in a full whiteout or deadly snowstorm,’’ he writes in his book.

Among the fourteen 8000m-peaks, Cho Oyu is often described as the easiest. Hinkes’ chapter on Cho Oyu begins thus: Categorizing any 8000m peak as `easy’ or referring to an `ordinary’ or ` normal’ route to the summit, is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing easy or normal about any 8000m mountain. Each of the fourteen giants represents a serious undertaking with different characteristics, dangers, difficulties and local weather patterns, and none should be underestimated.

In the eyes of the sport’s high priests, the situation on Cho Oyu may have inspired lack of precision in summit claimed. But it takes nothing away from Hinkes’ book, which strikes a fine balance between coffee table book and account of life in mountaineering, especially that recap of fourteen 8000m-peaks climbed over eighteen years, entailing twenty seven attempts in all. Towards the end of the book, Hinkes says that the fourteen 8000m-peaks are dangerous, that he climbed them for himself and not for money and therefore even guiding on those peaks for money isn’t worth risking his life again. The only mountains from the fourteen that he may consider climbing again are Everest (to which he returned) and Cho Oyu.

The book’s biggest strength is simplicity in the story telling. It is unpretentious. This is complemented by large and beautiful photographs backed by an uncluttered layout. The images give you a genuine sense of place without complicated camera work to distract from what is being shown. Hinkes’ photography is crisp and clean. The book has a nice architecture in terms of written content. Having devoted the introductory chapter to describing his affection for adventure and the evolution of his career in climbing, Hinkes keeps the accounts of his climbs straightforward and bereft of searching philosophy. He speaks matter of fact, mostly devoid of the dramatic, adding a touch of drama only where it seems relevant. Each story of climbing an 8000m-peak is followed by a smaller chapter on an interesting aside. The latter ranges from the photo of his daughter that he carried to mountain summits (it also gave him something to look forward to after the summit and kept him focused on descending safely), to profiles of Jerzy Kukuczka, Kurt Diemberger and Reinhold Messner, the correct clothing for high altitude mountaineering, his food habits on expeditions, ` the death zone’ as extreme high altitude is popularly called and dealing with death in a dangerous sport.

We live in an age, where mountaineering narratives are many. The media gaze has spared no landscape. Some would say – as early victim of media in adventure, the snowy, windswept heights of our planet suffer from a fatigued idiom of expression. If despite that, we still indulge media, then it must be conceded – content matters now more than ever before. Details like perspective, craft and lightness of handling, previously overlooked, have emerged differentiator for our tired senses. This book, at once serious for the subject it handles and enjoyably light in treatment, lives up to that more comfortable aesthetic.

For the average Indian like me, it is an expensive book.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This is a slightly edited version of a review originally written for the Himalayan Club Journal, Volume 69)


???????????????????????????????On the jacket of Wing Commander K.K. Nair’s book: By Sweat and Sword – Trade, Diplomacy and War in Kerala through the Ages, are observations pivotal to his work.

Colonial documents record that war was the natural state of Kerala. The region’s political climate was characterized by a variety of foreign and local powers fighting each other for economic and military ascendancy. Yet despite centuries of foreign contact and conflict, Kerala continued to thrive and retain its independence. The frontiers of Kerala were never redrawn. It did not suffer massive social or cultural dislocations. No foreign order or influence, especially those inimical to the populace, could be imposed until the traditional order was overturned. The influences Kerala absorbed were of its own choosing. The book “ hypothesizes that this remarkable achievement was a direct consequence of Kerala’s unique military, diplomatic, social and economic culture.’’

The book is an investigation of a state of war (internal and external), what that dynamic meant for defending Kerala and what it meant to external powers trying to subjugate the region or gain a toehold. Old Kerala transacted its business amidst a diet of military readiness. Actor across ages in this was a clan – the Nairs. The book isn’t community or clan history. It is what its title says, except, you can’t talk of war in Kerala without also talking about the Nairs. K.K. Nair’s book takes the reader from a likely foreign origin for the clan in tribes linked to the Scythians, their subsequent migration to India, movement within India along the south west coast to Malabar, their role in the wars of South India, wars within Kerala and wars with foreign powers trying to colonize Kerala.

The Scythian angle is founded on a couple of arguments. According to the author, there is no mention of the Nairs in the writings of the Sangam Age and earlier. The first mention in India is in the inscriptions of the Scythian king Nahapana who reigned from AD 78-125. His domain extended beyond the Gulf of Cambay, along the Gujarat and Konkan coast. The inscription talks of assisting the Nairs of Malabar. On the other hand, earlier in Europe, the Greek historian Herodotus (BC 484-425) noted that the Scythians had joined forces with neighbouring tribes, including one Slavic tribe called the Neuri, to stem the attack on Scythia by Darius of Persia. This happened around 500BC. Later as the restlessness of Mongolia and Turkestan took hold, the Scythians were further displaced. They began moving into Indo-Persian lands around 200BC. By this time the Neuri and other Scythian tribes no longer find mention around the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Megasthenes (BC 350-290) in his description of India, positions the like sounding Nareae tribe to the north of the Aravali Mountain. Putting two and two together, the author suggests a story of migration, initially towards India and later, within India.

Unlike North India, the South from ancient times was wrapped up in mutual warfare. The best known of this was the tripartite battles involving the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras. Kerala was predominantly Chera territory. It was hill country; it was also numerically disadvantaged. Invading armies were typically bigger. This was the environment into which the warrior-Nairs arrived. A clan of dedicated warriors to oversee security and their lifestyle revolving around martial culture influenced Kerala. K.K. Nair observes, “ Kerala, unlike most of India, was not divided into Hindu villages but was divided into gradations of military divisions with every division and sub division being designated by the allotted quota of Nairs it was required to bring into the battle field.’’

A fallout of this arrangement was that rulers didn’t maintain large standing armies but they could marshal an adequately large army at short notice. It is possible to trace local customs, building architecture and lifestyle – including the culture of martial arts – to such a militarily styled society. The Nairs’ fighting style associated in martial history with the `Berserk or Mad Warrior’ style (wherein they forgo use of armour), would have got progressively challenged as technology gained currency with opponents. But on many occasions, it also stunned foes. The book explores the warrior mindset, including suicidal contests like `Mamankam.’ Needless to say, some fighting or the other seems to have been always on in old Kerala. Accounts are commensurately bloody. K.K. Nair’s book helped me put in perspective some of the idiosyncrasies of Kerala. History provides a window to understand people. Nair’s book served such purpose.

The book brings us all the way from ancient battles to Kerala’s colonial wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch, Tipu Sultan’s invasion and eventually the onset of British supremacy. We get an idea of the strategies and tactics of invader and defender. We see how frustrated some invaders may have been, weighing their incessant harassment on land and sea against the viability of their spice trade. For lay readers (like me) the book’s central character and its agent of continuity will be the Nair soldier. He is there in every conflict, be it in Malabar, Cochin or Travancore. However, despite being Kerala’s constant warrior through the ages, the Nair goes tad unexplained beyond his image as set in historical accounts of battle. But then, the book’s main intent isn’t investigation of clan or community. It is instead a study of trade, diplomacy and war in Kerala provoked by the curious case of a state that held its shape through the years despite active engagement with the outside world.

To sum up: By Sweat and Sword is an interesting book about a violent past.


The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

The author of the book, Wing Commander K.K. Nair.

Wing Commander K.K. Nair is a serving Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. He is Joint Director, Operations (Space), at Air Headquarters, New Delhi. He replied by email to questions about the book:

Can you describe the circumstances that made you write this book? What attracted you to the subject?

I was coming from Geneva to New Delhi in 2007, when my French co-passenger Valerie, a part time scholar and full time hippie – as she put it, gave me a running commentary on Kerala in ancient times and the Nairs. My interest in the subject was sufficiently kindled. I became curious to know more. Thereafter, when I mentioned the subject to Gen Satish Nambiar, then Director of the United Services Institute (USI), he strongly encouraged me to do an in-depth research. It was the active support and encouragement from Gen Nambiar, Gen PK Singh, Squadron Leader RTS Chinna of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and my colleagues in the military services that enabled me to sustain my attraction for the subject.

How did you go about collecting the material for this book? Would you like to share any interesting moments therein?

Most of my material for research came from the National Archives, the Travancore, Cochin state records, from the USI as also from the University library, Trivandrum and the late Travancore Maharajah’s private collection. Some material came from the Dutch records for which I am particularly indebted to Mr Tristan Mostert, Curator of the Rijksumuseum, Amsterdam. Material on the ‘Mad-Warrior’ style of Nair warfare came from Prof Michael P. Speidel of the University of Hawaii. Overall, a lot of effort went into collecting material for the book.

With regard to interesting moments, one of these was when during a meeting with the late Maharajah of Travancore, he read the draft account of the battle between Tipu’s troops and the Travancore Nair regiment on the Travancore Lines. He got so animated reading the account that he rushed in to get an old `ola’ (palm leaf document) showing grant of lands etc to the Garrison Commander Kalikutty Nair.

The next equally interesting moment was at Trivandrum’s University Library. There was some kind of a strike on and the library was forced to shut. I was returning disappointed when I saw some students striding up to me calling out, “Pattalam Saar, Major Saab” etc. They got the library reopened for me stating that strikes don’t apply to OUR military. I was truly overwhelmed.

You have attributed a Scythian link to the Nairs. How conclusive is that?

I have avoided being judgmental throughout the script. I leave the conclusions to the reader.

Having written this book, can you briefly explain why a state of war became Kerala’s dominant predicament?

An abundance of resources always brings in problems of management. These snowball into rivalries, conflicts and war. Kerala had enough agricultural produce, spices etc to feed itself and the world at large. Little wonder then that its shores attracted the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans. This ability to produce resources, trade resources and sustain prosperity across the ages was possible because a fine balance existed amongst the various communities in Kerala. Thus, though war was daily affair, trade and agriculture never suffered.

Is war and warrior a chicken and egg situation capable of contributing to a state of war?

Yes. Your observation is very apt. It certainly contributes.

(The author of this review, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


`Shipton & Tilman,' the book by Jim Perrin.

`Shipton & Tilman,’ the book by Jim Perrin.

The day I went to interview Jim Perrin, I forgot to bring my camera.

Unusual for mid-February, it had rained. It felt like early September, the relatively weak, tapering part of monsoon with grey sky and reluctant sun. In his room at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, Jim sat facing the rain tinged light of the window. Beyond it was the road leading to the Gateway of India. The light filtering in graced the room, built big to colonial dimension and still preserved in the old style.

Jim rested his back on one armrest and slung his legs over the other. He recalled his life writing about climbers. In that borderland of writing and climbing, one of the things he ended up doing was writing obituaries. He wrote many.

Then, there are those three books, conceived long ago as a trilogy, each representing an influential person or phase in British climbing.

John Menlove Edwards the subject of the first book in the series had been a gifted rock climber and writer. Don Whillans, the topic of the second book in the trilogy, personified the gate crashing outsider. Until then, mountaineering had been the preserve of an elite, class conscious imagination. Whillans gate crashed the party but the very force that made him would also be his undoing. Jim, a rock climber in his younger days, knew Whillans. The overcast sky dispatched a pool of diffused light to where Jim sat. I tried my best to focus on Jim talking but my mind couldn’t help regretting the photograph of writer in that room, missed.

Few hours after our chat, Jim received the Kekoo Naoroji Award from the Himalayan Club, for his third book – the last of the trilogy – on the remarkable partnership between Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman. In India, the duo are best remembered as explorers of the Himalaya, two mountaineers who worked together to fashion an approach to the iconic 7816m-high Nanda Devi. That peak is the heart beat of Kumaon. In August 1936, Tilman and Noel Odell would become the first party to summit the peak. Although he partnered Tilman in finding a route to Nanda Devi (it sits well guarded by a wall of other high mountains), Shipton had opted for Everest, when this eventually successful expedition came by. He never reached Nanda Devi’s summit. But Shipton-Tilman was more than Nanda Devi.

Mountaineering is a harsh sport. Sure there is what nature throws at you. But there is also the mix of personal ambition and high adventure through natural hazards faced, which forces an evaluation of self and others that is heartless and very often, the stuff of anger, regret and acrimony. Egos clash. Teams break up. Many times, friendship and break-up have happened all in the space of one expedition. Shipton-Tilman was different. Their friendship endured and even after the two men – each quite different from the other in terms of character and yet somewhere similar – stopped climbing together, they maintained their mutual respect. For many Indian mountaineers in their middle age now or past it, Shipton-Tilman is the ideal. Further their legacy is in a class of its own. The books they wrote together and separately are considered classics of outdoor writing.

I read my first Tilman in my forties much after the world of climbing had been invaded by modern media leading us to believe that nobody told climbing’s story as well as we did. That’s the mark of our times. Reading Tilman was an invitation to correct such arrogance. His writing engaged and the imagination in it captivated for the questions it posed and the style it adopted so many years ago. It was humbling.

Jim Perrin (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jim Perrin (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Core to the world of mountaineering and aside from their lasting partnership, Shipton-Tilman are remembered for a couple of other reasons. First, they are among the last classical explorers of the Himalaya and the exploration of a route to Nanda Devi was one fantastic story. Second, while the mountaineering style between the great wars of the twentieth century endorsed both the ideals of empire and climbing in military style-expeditions, this twosome ventured forth in lean teams, interacted with the local people and lived off the land. Today we call such lean climbing – alpine style ascents. The British mountaineering establishment of the days when Shipton-Tilman climbed couldn’t gauge the potential impact of their style, till fault and criticism progressively caught up with the practice of giant expeditions. As empire faded, so did the reverence for old siege and assault styles. But Shipton-Tilman lived on as `alpine.’ From a writer’s perspective, these two men pose a unique challenge. Despite books they wrote and books about them, there is little providing insight into their formative years. In their accounts, both men don’t indulge this angle. In reality, Shipton’s childhood and youth are relevant to understand him as is Tilman’s military experience during World War I. One took his chances with women; the other was called misogynist. Jim tries to explain the two characters well, with detailed research and at times, educated guess based on personal knowledge. For instance – he knew Tilman.

After approximately a third of the book read and the rest skimmed through to confirm its flavour, Jim Perrin’s book came across as a study. It is not the typical climbing story. The narrative of the Shipton-Tilman climbs is already out there. Jim’s is a writer’s journey into their separate stories, their separate characters, their association as a team and what they possibly meant in their writings (Jim puts it in perspective). It is also therefore a book based on many other books. So, more than climbing, it is literature and scholarship, a valuable insight into the greatest partnership in mountaineering. According to Jim, the book had been thirty years in the making. Asked why he restricted himself to writing on British climbers, he said that he preferred to write on subjects he knew. To me, that’s one more reason as to why Jim’s book matters.

When we finished chatting and it was time for lunch, I recommended a well known upmarket restaurant in Colaba. He agreed to it but then asked, “ Can I get aloo paratha?’’ So we ended up in a decidedly less expensive place, filled with chatter, tea and Indian food. Days later as I started reading Jim’s book, I noticed how it began with deep appreciation for the aloo paratha and tea he had enjoyed, at a dhaba near Gaumukh.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kilian at work on the route next to Samsara (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On February 25, after the three part series `Beyond Ganesha’ was published on this blog, Kilian Fischhuber responded to a mail I had sent earlier.

I had asked him whether he had a rough idea of the grades for the two new routes he had created. He said, “ I have tried both routes. The left one seems possible but I think we need Adam Ondra for it…. The other route, next to Samsara, I was close to doing it but in the end I didn’t. I am not absolutely sure about the grade. This comes usually during the process of trying and is normally decided after the climb has been done. But I think it will be around 8c+.”

The “left’’ route Kilian cites, is the route shown in the photo featuring Kilian that you find in part three of the series.

As Kilian’s mail shows, for now Ganesha remains the hardest sport route in India. Initial estimates of Ganesha’s grade too had been around 8c+. It was fixed at 8b+ after being fully climbed.

The potential for routes harder than Ganesha seems to be there in Badami.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)


Parker Hall (Photo: Shyam G Menon)Fans of the Indiana Jones series, will remember the scene from the first film when cinema’s favourite archaeologist faces a huge scimitar-wielding opponent. For a minute, we think it is time to bid goodbye to the adventurer played by Harrison Ford. Then, slowly recovering from the sight of scimitar swishing about, he pulls out his gun and fires. One bullet fells the imagery of the terrible scimitar. As simple as that; balloon pricked.

Something similar happened last November, during the last session of the 2013 Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival when the documentary film `Kukuczka’ by Jerzy Porebski was screened. In the film (a tribute to the legendary Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka), veteran mountaineer Kurt Diemberger comments on the current craze for speed ascents on formidable mountains. Gracefully aged by time, Diemberger has a serene, saintly gaze. He gently laughs and compares these swift climbs to the difference between sex and loving a person, understanding a person. Sometimes in the world of adrenalin soaked-climbing, you need a wake-up call as effective as Indiana Jones’s bullet. This seemed just that. The analogy was perfect; the delivery in Diemberger’s affable way, equally so. For me, it was one of the truly memorable moments of the last edition of the festival. You come to events like this, to rediscover the value of thought. Restoring thought in outdoor sport is particularly difficult as the world of marketing and media have squeezed contemplation out leaving us with action junkies in close-up.

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

William Dalrymple speaking at the Mussoorie festival (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

On the other hand as author David Roberts wonderfully pointed out (he was quoting Benvenuto Cellini) in an old essay on mountaineers’ biographies, there is value in writing memoirs when you are past forty and not before. As you age you learn to see what happened from a distance, not with your nose to the rock. Yet thanks to competition, marketing and media, our world has been losing that distance, that perspective. As ornaments for adventurer grow, the outdoors fades to being means for a world resonating us. It is like you swallowed K2, vacuumed the Sahara or gulped down the Pacific to become something bigger than they all – which you do in the human world. You tower above others while whatever you conquered exists timeless out there. It is both a crisis in human imagination and a crisis in sponsorship models for without claim by superlative (in world running out of superlatives) and consequent interest shown by media, money shuns adventure. I found Diemberger’s comparison, spot on. It is easier to manufacture reasons for attention by marketing’s logic, than to know the mountains or lose yourself to what you like and where you had been. That’s the thing – are you willing to lose yourself, trade rank among humans for mere place in everything? I found myself laughing hearing Diemberger’s observation. I also found myself saying: thank you!

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ayush Yonjan (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival is both about writing / arts and about mountains / the outdoors. It is special for me. First, it gets me back to the hills, reunites me with others similarly cast. Second, as a writers’ festival, it returns the intellect to a domain rapidly trading intellect for the glamour and decisiveness of action. I write as outsider. Despite much time spent climbing, I wasn’t good climber. Still, if average climber may speak up – I was never fascinated by just action. Save perhaps in the thoughtless depths of tackling a climbing route, which is too much an instance of focused, intense existence to be generalized as life. Firmly into middle age, I also realized that my being has a spiritual side, which needs attention as much as my body. A larger landscape now interests me. To feel the larger world, you stay open to a variety of stimuli ranging from music to photography, to painting, writing, science, history, geography – for all this exists out there. A festival like the one at Mussoorie, I felt, approached the outdoors so. Notwithstanding shortfalls, it strives for more dimensions than one.

The first time I was here in 2010, I walked to the assigned venue, past walls hosting photographs of mountains by Coni Horler, a participating photographer. Evenings, music took over – that time, it was artistes passing through town and, I suspect, some of the staff of Woodstock school who performed. The school is the festival’s immediate ecosystem.

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Romulus Whitaker (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2013 – the festival trifle bigger and shifted wholly to the school’s Parker Hall – I walked to the venue through an exhibition of Thangka paintings by the Nepali artiste Ayush Yonjan. Evenings brought on stage, a band from the hill town of Shillong in North East India. They sang songs from the 1950s and 1960s.

In between we had a host of speakers, among them – Krzysztof Wielicki, William Dalrymple, Romulus Whitaker, Janaki Lenin, John Gans, Mark Vermeal, Simon Beames, Mamang Dai, E. Theophilus, Omair Ahmed, Dawa Steven Sherpa, Allan Sealy, Sejal Worah, Daniele Nardi, D.R. Purohit, Jeph Mathias, Kaaren Mathias, Tara Douglas, Maria Cofey, Peter Smetacek, Neela Venkatraman, Freddie Wilkinson and Deborah Baker. The topics spanned history to wildlife, experiential education, poetry, mountains, mountaineering, photography, river journeys and butterflies.

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The band from Shillong (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As before, the festival was anchored by author, Stephen Alter and his team, including those from the school’s Hanifl Centre for Outdoor and Environmental Study. It was supported by the Winterline Foundation, begun by Woodstock alumni.

No doubt, all that engaged. But In 2013, my take away was Diemberger’s comment on film. I guess my personal set of circumstances, my private funk in climbing was waiting for it. Like a bullet to invincible images on stained glass, the comment demolished the intervening interpretation of climbing by distinction and let nature in. I imagined speed climber distracted by the changed ambiance, sitting down to admire the world from a mountain slope. Something has snapped in him. He thinks – how about a tent, a warm cup of tea, some love and affection, the slow life?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)



???????????????????????????????I quote two paragraphs from pages 83 and 84 of Brian D. Kharpran Daly’s book, ` Caves for the Uninitated’:

“ You know, Marisa, it is a real pleasure to impart knowledge to someone who is eager and has a thirst to learn. I will be only too happy to teach you all I know, step by step.’’

“ Just be good and disciplined kids and follow your heart in what you want to do in life. I can only help in igniting the spark in your heart.’’

Brian’s book on caves is structured as a series of chats with a group of youngsters after their visit to a cave in Meghalaya, the Indian state best associated with caving.

To me, the above mentioned paragraphs sum up my own impression of Brian.

There are very few like him in the Indian outdoors. In these days characterized by the specific highlighted to overshadow the whole, it is very difficult to find a mind given to appreciating the whole. I add – in our times of greatness while still young, knowing the whole is a time consuming process. Caving for Brian, could have easily reduced to technical skills, high adventure and apartness by what all that means – much like advertisements of adventure these days. That’s all we care for; life in single dimension, climber on vertical face.

Brian’s story is different.

When I met him in Shillong some years ago, Brian came across like an oddity in the regular outdoor spectrum. Already feted for his contribution to caving in India, he was still explorer at heart, someone who saw caving as the sum total of an experience spanning skills to science to the sheer grandeur of nature. Plus, he was articulate, down to earth and hardly like so many others adventuring for distinction. Not to mention – he made good wine. I came off happy to have met somebody who was multidimensional, someone who represented the whole as opposed to specific highlighted at the expense of the whole. There was an unmistakable maturity in the meet-up. Maybe – and here I am guessing – that’s a product of being pioneer. For Brian’s entry into caving not only signalled a leap in the scale of cave exploration in Meghalaya, caving also struggled to coexist with rising environmental threat to Meghalaya’s caves, courtesy mining. With that threat hanging as Damocles Sword over the very medium he fancied, Brian was likely forced to learn the subject from all angles. If so, his mind was perfect for the job. As the book shows, Brian’s awareness of a cave straddles the many aspects that make a cave what it is. I should also mention that I know of few persons in the Indian outdoors, who pursued their case (in Brain’s instance, protection of Meghalaya’s caves) all the way to the Supreme Court, even if it was to eventually lose the battle (please see the August 2013 post in Outrigger: The Caves of Meghalaya).

Brian D. Kharpran Daly  (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Brian D. Kharpran Daly (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Given this backdrop, I think Brian was cut out to write this book. A lay reader wanting to know more about caving couldn’t have asked for a better author in terms of experience in the subject, love for the subject and willingness to be evangelist for it. Brian leads the reader on through stalagmites, stalactites and siphons to gear used for caving and on to simple dos and don’ts for safe cave exploration. Strictly from the perspective of book review, it is a slightly inconsistent book beginning as easy, informal narrative but becoming trifle textbook like over the last quarter. It could have been better edited. However for all its minor shortcomings, Brian has successfully presented us with caves in general and Meghalaya’s caves in particular, all the way from the natural chemistry forming them to the myths and legends man wrapped them in. It is a wonderful effort in a country yet to adequately notice the speleology in its midst.

Our knowledge of the outdoors, the Indian outdoors and adventures therein, will be incomplete without this book on caves.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)     


I had never seen the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM).


So early today morning (January 19, 2014) I joined the many who lined the streets of the city to watch the runners go by. 

Predictably my small camera was challenged trying to photograph the elite athletes.

It found slower world around, easier to capture than runner whizzing by.

The top athletes maintained quite a pace.

??????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????


Amid the corporate overdose, the branding and sense of heavy duty event – the pace of the elite lot was my take away of the day.

They ran.

They and all else who ran, even those who attempted to; they restored to me what I had come to see – running.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the above photos were taken by him.)  


???????????????????????????????Please note: The 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition concluded on January 26. This post pertains to preparations ahead of competition. It provides insight in this regard. Just after the regular updates, you will find a simple primer to understand how the competition format works in climbing.

The eleventh edition of the annual bouldering competition hosted by Mumbai’s oldest mountaineering club, Girivihar, is scheduled over January 23-26, 2014, at CBD Belapur, Navi Mumbai.

It is an open competition.

As usual, the organizers expect participants from India and overseas.

For more on the history and evolution of this annual event, readers can see the story ` A Competition’s Solo Climb’ posted on Outrigger in August 2013.

Those wishing to participate in the upcoming edition should report to the venue on January 22.

On January 23 and 24, you have the master’s round. January 25 is for amateur climbers.

On the last day, January 26, Republic Day, the wall will be open for the general public to try their hand at climbing. This will be in the form of a workshop on climbing for citizens. 

Details can be had at


Work on this year’s climbing wall and other competition related formalities has begun (please see photos herein).

Abhijit Burman, Franco Linhares and Vivek Thakur have become busy.

Vaibhav Mehta should arrive in a few days.

Rohan Gawand and Sandesh Palshetkar dropped by to help.

 The countdown has begun.


As Franco said when I spoke to him on Monday (January 13), for climbers it is that time of the year when “ all roads lead to Belapur!’’

???????????????????????????????Update 1 / January 14: Tuesday was a day of festivals in India.

According to newspaper reports, there were five happening at once.

Early evening, the stadium near the competition venue at Belapur was in celebratory mood, hosting games ranging from cricket to kabaddi.

Amid that, work on the climbing wall continued.

Abhijit Burman (aka Bong) was at the venue, as was Prashant Venugopal, who informed freelance journalist living out all days as same, that Tuesday was holiday. It added to the pleasure of meeting friends and the cups of tea, Bong handed out.

The w???????????????????????????????all’s size is now clear from the framework built to support it. According to Bong, the wall for 2014 will be the biggest constructed yet for the Girivihar competition. It is marginally longer than what has been installed before.

A familiar face to anyone who has witnessed the previous competitions is Raju, the carpenter.

For the first few years, the wall was built in-house by climbers along with Bong’s architect-brother Indrajit. Slowly, as the overall work around the competition grew, carpenters arrived.

Raju, who hails from Chhapra in Bihar, first worked on the annual wall in 2009. From then on, he has been a regular sight at every edition. This time, he has two people to assist. On Tuesday, every tea break featured Bhojpuri songs played from the trio’s mobile phones.


The wall-building work has got considerably mechanised. As sparks flew from the metal cutter slicing its way through a slotted angle-frame, Bong recalled how in the early years of the competition, all they had was the hacksaw blade and several blades broken every edition by a lot of metal to cut.


Now, the shift to the venue ahead of competition includes all required raw materials to build the wall, an array of hand held machines for cutting and drilling and – a small kitchen installed next door to keep the tea and biscuits coming for those working. It may not seem much but eleven years ago, the entire event was just a thought in the head.

shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-12Old timers would recall Bong’s first house in Belapur, small in size and rendered smaller still by the climbing equipment – even a climbing wall – cramped into it. There, in the banter preceding and following the weekend assembly for climbing at the Belapur crags, the competition had taken shape. If I recall correctly, once formally discussed and cast as something to do, the first edition happened within a couple of months’ time. The response encouraged sufficiently to keep the show going year after year. Prashant had been one of those contributing to the prize money for the first edition. “ That is certainly one of the best investments I made,” he said.

???????????????????????????????Update 2 / January 16: The wall’s shape is slowly beginning to unravel.

About 60 per cent of its overall appearance – minus coat of paint – seems to be in place.

A climbing wall’s mind – what it uses to stump the climber with – is its holds, its features. Their shape, how they are placed and crucially, what type of hold or feature turns up where on given climbing route decide the challenge. So, 60 per cent overall appearance now visible at site, says nothing of what the prospective climbing could be. The route is a secret known only to the Chief Route Setter. Belapur awaits Vaibhav Mehta.

shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-16shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-17Constructing the wall is hard work; both actually building it and the supervision of the task. I suspect, just as with mountain, few will remember these aspects. Ever heard of a mountaineer who pauses to wonder how the mountain came to be? Eventually, our wall too will be all about climber and to a lesser degree, climbing. Such is the human mind! Watching a wall take shape, that does make one feel trifle sad.

January 16 felt another typical day at the wall.

The core team was there; Franco till late afternoon, Vivek Thakur arrived late evening. Bong is permanent fixture as is Raju, the carpenter and his team. For freelance journalist, time was marked by catching up on old stories and discussions about life (the world according to middle aged climbers!), periodically interrupted by quick fire shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-19exchanges between Bong and Raju.???????????????????????????????

The latter successfully executed a delicate cut with saw on plywood as Bong watched with bated breath. He then looked Bong in the eye and claimed, “ I can now cut anything!’’ We laughed. On another occasion, Raju installed a panel, then looked at the shape of the wall around him as though trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle and proceeded to tell Bong what he thought his next moves would be. Bong smiled, walked up to him and asked, “ you can now anticipate what is on my mind, can’t you?’’  

Thus, slowly but steadily, with much fun and banter in between, the wall comes up for what it hopes will be a good response to the competition, from climbers.

???????????????????????????????Update 3 / January 17: Work on the wall has progressed well.

The facade was nearing completion as of late evening.

The painters were set to take over, next day.

Once the wall’s front face is fully up, the building team will busy itself providing more structural strength through slotted angle-frameworks for roofs and other panels besides more linkages between the wall and the scaffolding behind.   

When it started years ago, this annual Girivihar competition was wholly on natural rock. The climbing crags of Belapur are located along the slopes of an amphitheatre of hills. This is where the bulk of the club’s weekend climbs used to happen. It is also home to the club’s annual rock climbing camp that trains newcomers to the sport. Both arms of this arc-like landscape were tapped for rocks to climb, later compete on. On one occasion, the competition stepped out from this area to the nearby Khargar hill road as well. But that was just once for an impressive route there couldn’t be availed again.

shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-23A few years into holding the competition, the first set of artificial walls for the event made a shy debut. They were housed indoors and if I remember right, were held in place with ropes. Soon, these walls transitioned to not just being located outside but they also replaced natural rock to be the prime medium for the competition.

The structure of these walls betrayed the competition’s home grown flavour. The wall was mounted on a framework of slotted angles but it was held in place by bamboo scaffolding. Amid climbing sessions, rope and bamboo tended to loosen. It required tightening. The lack of elegance did nothing to dampen the competition (national champions, strong climbers from overseas and even a world champion visited Belapur to climb or set routes during this phase). But tightening the bamboo structure wasn’t fun. Bamboo gave way to steel framework. While all this may seem trivial, for a home grown competition, each change meant rethinking funds and finding ways to make scarce money happen. The next stage was to graduate from renting the steel scaffolding to owning it so that recurrent cost in every edition of the event was contained at least to that extent. In this, Mangesh Takarkhede, who had been winner in the competition before, helped. Today, it’s a presentable grid of metal behind the wall.

???????????????????????????????For Girivihar and climbing in Belapur, the annual competition is a get-together of climbers, a reaffirmation of the joy in climbing.

Befittingly therefore, Vinay Potdar, Sandeep Maity and Rahul Ranjan reached Belapur early today (January 17), from days spent climbing in Hampi.

???????????????????????????????By evening, Sandeep Bhagyawant, Rohan Gawand and Vivek Thakur arrived. Franco, at site since afternoon, stayed busy liaising with local authorities. Shantanu Pandit dropped by.

So far, everything has been on schedule.

Update 4 / January 18: You could say the wall is ready. ???????????????????????????????

For the wall-building team, only minor structural work remains.

The painters have given the facade an initial base layer.

Colours are yet to come.

Late evening when the painters left, the wall was white; like climbers’ chalk.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????This is the first time in the history of artificial walls at the Girivihar competition that work on a wall has concluded this early, ahead of schedule.

“ We began work earlier than usual,’’ Bong said.

Now it is up to those executing the remaining jobs to maintain that efficiency and sustain the relatively relaxed atmosphere. Needless to say, smoothly working systems make the competition enjoyable.   

shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-25On the stage adjacent to the venue, was a collection of crash pads, neatly stacked. Thanks to Ajith Bhobate, they were moved here today from the Poddar College climbing wall maintained by Girivihar. More such pads are due; they are used to cushion falls from the climbing wall once the event gets underway. It is that time of the year when crash pads catch taxis, suburban trains, squeeze into three wheelers and ride pillion on two wheelers – to be useful in Belapur.

Update 5 / January 19: I guess today, despite the wall gaining colours, it should take a back seat.

???????????????????????????????Vaibhav Mehta has landed.

When the first edition of the Girivihar climbing competition was conceptualised over a decade ago, it was in no small measure due to the rise of a new generation of climbers in Mumbai. They embraced sport climbing. That lot was headed by Vaibhav; other prominent names were Sandeep Varadkar, Shyam Sanap and Mangesh Takarkhede. Not only did they push sport climbing, they were also so fiercely given to climbing that it was pretty much what they did for main activity. Suddenly, climbing wasn’t merely hobby. Bong, a technician by profession, was willing to piece together the competition’s infrastructure. These climbers brought the passion and critically, the attraction for others of their generation to turn up in Belapur.

Vaibhav –he ran a climbing gym in Leh (Ladakh) for a couple of years – now lives in France, a country strongly identified with climbing. He is the competition’s Chief Route Setter.

???????????????????????????????His old friends – Sandeep, Shyam and Mangesh – turn up to work alongside at the annual competition. Like Bong, Vaibhav and Co has been another building block of the event. The wall will understand if I said that the wall isn’t main news today. That would be: Vaibhav is here.       

As for the wall – its facade has been painted orange, grey and blue.

Also arrived today, were more crash pads and several plastic bins filled with climbing holds.

???????????????????????????????Meanwhile, the team of club members who will manage the show got around to discussing other aspects vital to the event, ranging from registration formalities to accommodation.

Update 6 / January 20: The photo says it all.

Late evening; a climbing wall painted orange, grey and blue shines under arc lights.

???????????????????????????????It gleams impervious to crunch hour approaching.

There are pending tasks; that inevitable last minute rush to face.

The drift to upcoming competition is now palpable.

Update 7 / January 21: The day began with worry.

It rained.

Coming to think of it, yesterday (January 20) had been cloudy. If I remember right, the sun never broke through.

But who would anticipate rain in January in Mumbai?

They wouldn’t have in Belapur.

What’s happening to the orange wall? – I thought.

Late afternoon, Belapur.

A shy sun is out in the sky.

The wall was as orange, grey and blue as ever.

Pretty much the same as it was last night.


??????????????????????????????? shyam-blog-edit-gv-comp-2014-35The team got the warm up-wall in the isolation area, ready. That will be used by climbers waiting in isolation for their names to be called out to emerge and climb. A warm up-wall keeps them going.

Late evening, work on setting up all the boulder problems required for the various stages of the competition got underway.

Watching it was an engaging experience. It reminded me of days in climbing gone by. A set of portable speakers played wonderful music. Chief Route Setter, Vaibhav and his team stayed intensely focused on their task; the music amply aiding the creative yet acutely action-oriented atmosphere. They set routes, attempted them, discussed difficulty levels. Once a problem has been finalized, the climbing holds used to make it are removed and the wall returned to its original look. But because the boulder problems so designed must remain confidential until disclosed for competition and since problems in the making can give away information on how to climb them, we have no photographs of the wall’s facade today.

Its the wall’s Houdini Phase; there, yet not there – disappeared!

Update 8 / January 22: Relatively peaceful day, despite it being eve of competition.

Outstation participants have begun arriving. A few had landed on January 21.

By 8.30PM today, 25-30 competitors had registered, mostly for the Master’s category.

There was dinner for all at the venue, including the participants who have reached Belapur.

The competition management team held a meeting. Specific responsibilities – ranging from judging to cleaning holds, spotting and supervising isolation – were allotted.

As mentioned earlier, the first set of boulder problems were prepared on the wall, January 21st night. A boulder problem once approved is documented and removed. Tonight, after all the participants have retired to their rooms, the wall was slated to come alive again, as the Chief Route Setter and his team continue their work. That wonderful music would be back, the climbing shoes would be out, hands would be chalked and a bliss hold-to-hold would descend.

???????????????????????????????The competition begins tomorrow, January 23.

Before I sign off, a photo of the wall, clicked late evening today when participants were allowed to be there for registration and dinner. This photo was taken with the Chief Route Setter’s permission.

Good luck for the competition and happy climbing!


For those readers who wish to understand what happens during a climbing competition, here’s a simple primer. It avoids complicated details and speaks of the main points that matter:

bl-gv-pix-2The Girivihar competition has two categories in the main – women and men. The event starts with these two groups in mind and evolves separate sub-categories based on age (under-sixteen and above) depending on the number of participants. If a potential sub-category has too few participants, it gets merged with a suitable another.  

A climbing competition on an artificial wall (like the one at the Girivihar event) typically involves tackling a boulder problem that has been designed by the route setter. To retain the element of surprise and newness, every round of competition begins with ` isolation.’ Akin to extempore speech contests, when you are taken aside, given the subject and told to prepare your speech in five minutes, here, the competitors sit in isolation away from the wall while the route is readied. This is followed by the chance to observe / study your route before you climb; it happens differently for the qualifying rounds and the finals. In the qualifying rounds the acts of observing / studying a route and climbing it, get clubbed together. You do it at one go, emerging from isolation when your name is called, observing the route and then attempting it. However in the finals, participants come out together from isolation to observe the route, then return to isolation and emerge one by one to climb. In the finals, the two acts of observing / studying a climbing route and climbing it, are treated distinctly.

The wall is composed of multiple faces and each face has a route to be attempted for participant to formally finish a full round of attempts. Therefore, he / she is entitled to five minutes of climbing a face on the wall followed by five minutes of rest before attempting the next face. The ability to tackle a route is a combination of how well you imagine it in terms of climbing moves in your head and how well you actually execute the plan you conceived. Therefore, when more than one competitor is out in front of the wall, the one taking rest has to sit facing away from the wall. This is to ensure that the one taking rest does not see another competitor climb a route he / she is expected to attempt. In the finals, since there is separate time awarded to observe / study each face, the time participants get to climb is regarded as four minutes plus. That `plus’ runs for as long as the participant takes to finish his last attempt begun within assigned time limit.  

When climbers are observing a route, you will often see them move their arms and imitate grips with their fingers, as though engaged in a climb. This is done to physically ingrain / memorize the sequence of moves, they figured out by observing with their eyes while still on the ground. Once the participant emerges from isolation to climb, he / she is considered to have started climbing the moment a classic three point-contact with both feet off the ground, happens on the wall. This is noted as one attempt. The participant can have any number of attempts within the allotted time.

While the above are the basic rules, from the judges’ perspective, when the competition gets intense or climbers are evenly placed, smaller details will matter profoundly. For example, how many attempts you took to climb a route, how far you reached on a route – all this and more will be factored in for distinction. An interesting angle herein is the use of the `zone’ concept. Under this, on some exceptionally difficult routes that participants are struggling to finish, a participant, while unsuccessful at gripping the final hold and moving up, may manage to touch the final hold and keep his / her fingers there for a while to establish how far he / she reached.  

In the last edition of the Girivihar competition, there were climbing routes ranging in difficulty from sub-6 to mid-7 on the French grading scale. There is never prior indication of what to expect in terms of grades at a competition as that is a dynamic equation between the Chief Route Setter and the calibre of participants. The Chief Route Setter gauges the gathered climbing talent and improvises accordingly. That said, grade itself is a funny thing; it tells you much of the science climbing has become (with its ability to award numbers to difficulty) and how relative (art – you could say) it still is for the numbers are a matter of perception. Thus, once a route is designed, the Chief Route Setter and his trusted team (in other words – more than one person) attempt / climb the route for a feel of what it is. Together and after adequate deliberation, they assign grade. Equally, once a route of challenging grade has been climbed many times over, it is not seen to retain its original grade. On natural rock, this degradation is even physically tangible in the form of accelerated weathering of tough holds into easy ones, courtesy several climbers passing through. On artificial walls where holds can be replaced, it is more a case of the how-to-do knowledge becoming available. This how-to-do element is referred to in climbing parlance as the `beta’ of a route.   

The above is a simple guide to understanding how a climbing competition works. The proposed citizen’s workshop of January 26, the last day of the 2014 Girivihar Climbing Competition will be a useful programme to attend for more on this subject and plenty more related to climbing.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. All the photos featured here were taken by him.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Sharp 7AM.

My hard earned dream crumbled.

A whole film of imagined life stopped playing with that cracker blast announcing Diwali.

Lights came on in the theatre. I stirred in the seat I had snugly settled into, rubbed my eyes and gazed back at the projection room. Despite my best attempts, those shafts of light failed to return. Damn! What had I been doing? Was I singing to the heroine? Was I lone ranger on wild landscape? Was I delivering an inspiring speech? Hell, there was neither memory of where I had been nor depth of sleep remaining to transport self to oyster of imagination. It was all truly shattered.

A second blast went off.

I was now one hundred per cent awake.

I stay on the ground floor. The faint smell of burning chemical – that unmistakable smell of Diwali – drifted in. “ Happy Diwali,’’ I mumbled to myself and pressed my face into the pillow hoping that the harder I pressed my face into the foam, it would become a bomb-proof, puffy barrier shielding me from the nuisance outside the window. A third cracker went off, this one with a hiss and a fizz, a bang gone dud. “ Bet that was a quality certified manufacturer,’’ I muttered, recalling the emergent claim in cracker advertisements.

The kid wasn’t discouraged.

I heard the sound of feet shuffling outside. His movements paused as he focused on lighting the next cracker, lovingly packaged a thousand kilometres away and dispatched here to blow up my sleep. Was he writing: ` to uncle with love’ on it before going bang? Then I heard him sprint to safety. I looked at the ceiling: would it be bang gone dud or BANG? The question mark felt like that infamous scene of Russian roulette from `The Deer Hunter.’ With Indian quality standards, claimed certification to boot, you could never be sure how the next blast would be. I held my breath; counted the seconds. Then I hit the pillow. BOOM! This one shook me. I was now sitting on the bed, my hair on end like Dr Emmet Brown from `Back to The Future.’  I could visualize a piece of burnt paper scribbled ` to uncle with love,’ drifting down from the ceiling in Diwali-smelling room.

I don’t burst crackers.

From the balcony, I briefly watched the proceedings. The kid had been joined by his friends. Against a background score of blasts laced by shouts of appreciation to bangs delivered as such, I made some coffee. What to do? I turned on the computer. In the time taken for it to boot, I recalled a conversation overheard at Chembur station, the previous night. A Malayali man was explaining the scale of Diwali in these parts of India, to somebody back home. “ It is trifle dull this year. I guess common people don’t have money to splurge. Crackers are expensive. But everyone will be active tomorrow and day after, that’s for sure,’’ he said.

In India, a cracker is a frame of mind, like spicy food made hotter with chillies and more chillies. Reason escapes it. Over the past couple of days, Dalal Street, where the city’s stock brokers went, had been doing the same thing. The economy had done badly; politics was lousy, jobs were hard to come by, there was inflation on the streets, elections were due and if they cared – freelance journalist was on his last legs. Yet, Jeejeebhoy Towers, home to Mumbai’s stock exchange, boomed. What was it celebrating? I have no idea. Maybe I should interview the kid. I suspect his reasoning and the market’s would be the same.

The computer booted.

I logged in.

There was nothing on the mail; nobody saying hello. Diwali felt like bang gone dud. Or maybe, they were all busy celebrating and would get down to remembering world, later. Guess you got to be a kid bursting crackers or a trader on Dalal Street to feel BANG! BANG! on Diwali.

From a corner of the mind, `Kill Bill’ and Nancy Sinatra crept in.

Bang bang, he shot me down

Bang bang, I hit the ground

Bang bang, that awful sound

Bang, bang, my baby shot me down

I tuned into an Internet radio station. What should I listen to? Upstairs stayed silent, indifferent. Old faithful, I decided, and clicked on `blues,’ then, `blues rock.’ Lazer Lloyd sang “ why Mr Politician, why do you lie to me?’’  It seemed pretty apt for country sailing into elections. In my suburb, overlooking clusters of shops selling crackers were posters of local politicians supporting Diwali celebrations. They smiled like benevolent patriarchs. Or, gazed unsmilingly like visionaries deciding my tomorrow, certainly their profitable tomorrow. On the radio, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Moore and Otis Taylor took stage. Then, Etta James belted out, “ the blues is my business and business is good.’’

I started typing this article.

The coffee soothed. The sentences formed. The blues struck a chord.

Suddenly, life seemed good.

Thank you kid for the wake up blast, I thought.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)